I freak out when my boss wants to give me feedback

A reader writes:

I’m catastrophically bad at taking feedback. I had a near-miss the other day and I’m reaching out for advice for the next time.

I’m at a new job on a short-term contract. It’s a small office, a relaxed atmosphere, and it’s pretty common to work from home the odd day. On my first week, I asked my boss by email if I could leave a little early the following Monday and he said, “Sure — work from home if you want to.” (I didn’t.)

Next week I emailed a request to work from home a day. Response was, “We can discuss that when we next catch up.”

I freaked out inside. Why wasn’t he saying yes? What had I done wrong? Why couldn’t he just say “no” straight out? I had to control an urge to rush right into his office and ask. I worked steadily all morning to make sure I had done enough of the current project to warrant a catch-up meeting and then suggested a catch-up. He said to grab some lunch first and I wanted to scream at the delay. I was too upset to eat. So much of my morning, my mind had been going to “Is it because I’m working too slowly? He hasn’t been giving me deadlines even though I asked for them, but I think I’m going quickly enough! Is it because he saw me on the Internet that one time and doesn’t think I can be trusted? Everyone does it and it was a news site, not Facebook!” I pictured myself having to explain to my husband that my at-will contract had been terminated…

Eventually the catch-up happened. He said it was fine to work from home that day and he simply wanted to make sure I knew that his preference was for people to be in the office most of the time. He actually praised my work.

I know this sounds frankly mad. Part of it’s my personality and part of it’s linked to my last job, which I wasn’t suited for and where I really DID mess up a lot. But I need to control my emotional reactions and I’m not really sure how.

I bet more of this than you realize is linked to your last job, or to other experiences where you learned to expect criticism or to hear you were doing something wrong. Somewhere along the line, your brain learned to expect the worst from these situations.

But as for how to control it now, there are a few different things that might help:

1. Ask for feedback. Rather than sitting around waiting to hear terrible feedback and thus keeping yourself in a constant state of dread, ask for feedback proactively. Ask, “How am I doing overall?” and “What would you like to see me doing differently?” This does a couple of things: It puts you in control of the situation — you’re getting feedback at the time that you ask for it, rather than worrying that it strike you when you least expect it. It also means that you’ll have a general baseline understanding of what your boss thinks of your work, so the next time you’re worrying that you’re about to be fired, you can remind yourself that two weeks ago, your manager said he was happy with your work. (It also makes you look great. Bosses love people who solicit feedback.)

2. Look to what you know about your boss. What signals has he given you about how he handles feedback or what he does when he’s unhappy with something? Does he let it fester and then spring it on you unexpectedly? Is he straightforward? Does he save it all up for formal meetings or talk to on an ad hoc basis throughout the week?

3. De-personalize the situation. If your friend were in this situation rather than you, what would you tell her? I’d bet you’d see it a lot more objectively and wouldn’t think she was about to hear ego-destroying criticism or get fired. But when you’re anxious about feedback at work, it can be really hard to see it objectively … so take yourself out of it and see if your perspective changes.

What other advice do people have?

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    No advice here; I do exactly the same thing. It comes from being raised in a very controlling environment. I’ve lost sleep over a quick call or stray email for days at a time.

    One great article I downloaded recently from the Harvard Business Review Blog was “The Set Up to Fail Syndrome: How good managers fail great people” or something like that. It described the destructive thought patterns on both sides that lead to poor work relationships, how to spot them in yourself, and ways to communicate with managers that get you out of the thinking spiral. For normal people, this is how they interact with managers every day, but for people who react this way, I thought it was an extremely helpful tool. I went into a check-in I was dreading using some of the techniques from the article and it ended up being the best check-in I’d had this year. Good luck.

    1. Anonymous_J*

      Any chance you could share that link? I think it would be helpful for me, as well. Where I work is anything BUT normal. :(

        1. cwes1492*

          Wow. WOW. That describes to a T my last manager and job, which I left about a year and a half ago. I never realized that my old boss was following such a tried and true pattern! The last few months of interactions with my boss left me so scarred, that it took me almost a year to get over the terror of messing up in my new (awesome) job. Finally working in a non-dysfunctional office is amazing, and it’s shown me just how abusive my old boss could be. Night and day comparison.

          1. Ethyl*

            I so hear this — I too had a horrible job with a horrible bully boss, and although it’s been several years and several job experiences that are totally healthy and fine since then, I still have a literally physical reaction when my boss comes in and shuts the door. So grateful for my current position in a healthy and non-abusive workplace. Whew.

        2. Stephanie*

          OMG! This was my last job exactly. What triggered it for me was asking too many questions (in my boss’ view). I tend to learn things by asking a lot of questions (I’m naturally inquisitive), but my boss started to view this as incompetence and unassertive nature. It didn’t help that he was remote, so the relationship was already naturally awkward.

          From there on out, my boss just viewed me as a poor performer and added an additional level of scrutiny (including hour-long weekly check-in meetings and progress reports on even half-day projects). All the added pressure and meetings started taking a toll on me and turned me into a constantly anxious worker.

          When that boss left, my new boss knew about the performance improvement plan, but gave me the benefit of the doubt. I also think it helped that we were in the same office.

          Things were going well…for a while. Company took a financial downturn and they were looking to cut personnel. I ended up getting fired due to my previous performance issues under my old boss. *sigh*

          1. OP*

            I got a lot of backlash at Horrible Last Job for asking questions, too. Even though it was supposed to be a continuous learning environment. It sucks.

            1. Stephanie*

              Ugh, that was my last job. (Did we have the same boss?)

              My boss even went as far have me track the times I thought of a question, didn’t ask it, and the steps I took to answer it myself. Not the most intuitive system.

              1. JM in England*

                I know exactly where the OP and Stephanie are coming from. At Old Job, I too asked a lot of questions but this was as a result of Old Boss constantly moving the goalposts; he too interpreted this as incompetence!

  2. J*

    Sounds like you may have an anxiety disorder. I would go and talk to a doctor about what you’re feeling, and if they detect an anxiety disorder, discuss treatment options. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often a good choice. Untreated anxiety can get worse.

    1. Katrina Bass*

      Bam – exactly what I was going to say. These kinds of thought patterns could not only affect your work (potentially), but also your overall health and thus attendance (potentially).

      No harm or shame in it – I went through counseling for years to build a healthy sense of self. Completely worth it and I highly recommend it.

      1. ChristineSW*

        I second this comment. I’ve been working on my sense of self for years too. I think it is a lifelong process (for me at least), but having the right therapist can make all the difference.

    2. Kou*

      If your previous workplaces operated in such a way that you learned (rightly) to be afraid of them, though, I think just being in a functional environment can realign your expectations. There are plenty of places where “we’ll talk about it” is a very good reason to be scared.

      When I first moved to a workplace run by competent people, it did take some months to learn that I did not need to be anxious. It sounds like the OP is still in that transitional time. I think it’s more constructive at this point to think of this as environmental adaptation than something OP needs to address on a such a personal level. There’s an important distinction between “I am still acclimating” and “I am not capable of acclimating,” and I wouldn’t jump to the second so quickly.

      1. WFBP*

        While I agree that time spent in a new environment realigning expectations is a great way to shed some of this anxiety, what the OP posted sounds rather crippling and could potentially impact others’ perception of her negatively if she’s not careful, especially as she stated that some of this comes from her own personality makeup.

        As someone with natural anxiety who has had “that job” that kept you up all night stressing over a missed number or whatever, I feel she may find it very helpful to get some temporary counseling and/or medication. Or, go natural and cut out processed, sugary foods and add plenty of water and exercise to calm the jitters. But please, OP, do something to change this fear before it impacts you in other ways as well (example, over- or under-eating, little meltdowns, persistent feeling of dread that you can’t shake, etc). Letting it go is not the answer, and no one has to know about this but you!

        I know friends and family who have had “that job” and it is years later and they still have anxiety over it, almost like PTSD. I admit, I have suffered the same. Professional help to ‘get over the hump’ might be a great tool in calming down and being able to assess the situation from a more relaxed perspective – thereby doing a better job overall and living a happier life!

        Not sure it applies to the OP, but a phrase I turn to when I’m feeling very anxious (when true) is “it’s not my problem”. This is because I will let everything get to me, whether I have control over it or not. Maybe this will help, if you encounter something that is truly not your problem or if worrying about it won’t do any good. Also, OP, if you’re paralyzed with fear and find yourself procrastinating, do SOMETHING, even if it’s one little task. This can help you unlock yourself and get to the larger stuff more easily.

        Good luck, OP! Plenty of people go through this, and there are plenty of options available to you to help calm your nerves. Take advantage of them and get a balanced life!

        1. Kou*

          I’m just saying, it’s her first week. I think she should see if a little time solves the problem before she adds the stress of finding/taking time for a doctor and, good god, adjusting to a medication regimen, when it’s likely not necessary at all. A prescription in particular seems like a glorious overreaction before she’s given herself enough time to adjust, especially considering the trial and error necessary to find the right drug and dose. I would caution against taking on those burdens hastily, it will just compound the problem by adding more worries.

          I do agree that a bad job can definitely lead to some manager PTSD in the long run, and if she finds these feelings don’t tone down (or get worse) she should absolutely look into some therapy/CBT to help edge it along. But it seems far too soon to be necessary now, to the point of actually being detrimental.

        2. tcookson*

          Wasn’t there a thread awhile back where we all posted our “job PTSD” moments? That might be helpful for the OP to read.

      2. Jessa*

        Exactly, it will take practise. You might have to remind yourself “this is not nasty place x.” A whole lot of times before it sinks in. A huge lot of times.

    3. Madge*

      This is EXACTLY what this is. I have the same problem. Please look into getting some therapy. “J” is exactly right. It will only get worse if untreated.

  3. voluptuousfire*

    I know this sounds frankly mad. Part of it’s my personality and part of it’s linked to my last job, which I wasn’t suited for and where I really DID mess up a lot. But I need to control my emotional reactions and I’m not really sure how.

    I understand this situation very well. I had a temp job last year that really knocked my professional confidence due to a combination of bad fit and a bit of a toxic environment. It’s a hard road to recover from.

    One thing I’ve learned over the years is when that feeling of “freaking out” starts to rise in my chest, I ask myself “is this really something to freak out over?” Nine times out of ten it’s not. Take a few deep breaths and if needed, put your head between your knees. One thing I would suggest for more long term maintenance is taking up yoga. I’ve had anxiety issues in the past (even ended up in the ER twice for panic attacks) and taking up yoga really helped with that. Being more in the moment and mindful really helps combat that rising anxiety of “what if?”

  4. Anonymous*

    OP, this is the story of my professional life.

    The one thing that has helped me the most is making sure I give my best effort all the time. When I know, and I mean REALLY KNOW that I have been working as hard and as well as I can, then the possibility of bad feedback doesn’t bother me as much. I don’t have guilt that feeds the fear that I deserve bad feedback. (And giving my best effort means that the potential for bad feedback is greatly reduced: bonus!)

    Best of luck with this.

    1. businesslady*

      I’m the same–I’ve just kind of learned to accept that I’ll have these moments of anxiety, & that I should embrace them as the motivators they are.

      I’ve worked in the same place with the same people for more than six years. I’ve gotten periodic promotions & they’ve adjusted certain policies to allow me to stay–which obviously isn’t something that would’ve happened if everyone secretly hated me & was hoping I’d quit. add to that, it’s the type of culture where even if I did something FLAGRANT there’d probably be a lot of red tape preceding an actual termination.

      & yet every so often I become convinced that I’ve RUINED EVERYTHING–either because of an actual (or perceived) mistake, or just a random “could we talk for a sec?” from my boss. even though I’ve never gotten any “seriously, fix this or we’ll have issues”-type feedback (at least not in the past few years).

      I think the PTSD/bad habits from previous workplaces thing is spot on; my first “real” job was under a boss who was hyper-critical & had a tendency to assume the worst in any situation (e.g., once he had a computer issue that prevented him from seeing some of the work I’d completed & immediately jumped to the conclusion that I’d been basically baldfaced lying to him about my productivity for months). there really WAS no warning or sense of security with him, which ultimately made me leave to join a new organization.

      I have tried to be better about “talking myself down” when this happens, & to use the anxiety, when it arises, as a chance to take stock of my actual accomplishments (&/or goad myself into doing anything on my to-do list that I’m feeling guilty about neglecting).

      one important thing to keep in mind: in most functional workplaces, you’re given at least one chance to learn from even the most disastrous mistakes, so unless you’re failing to respond feedback you’ve already received, assume you always have that safety net. (in the example above, even if it WAS “you were on the internet!” you’d have the chance to say “yikes, so sorry, won’t happen again” & then keep your word.) it’s a good thing to demonstrate your ability to learn from your mistakes & take critique gracefully, so a little bit of negative feedback is actually good for your professional development (regardless of how awful it may feel when you’re hearing it or trying to implement it).

      don’t torture yourself by envisioning worst-case scenarios like explaining how you got fired, but also, keep this in mind: people get fired, get laid off, make career-derailing errors, etc. all the time, & they eventually move forward. one of my good friends was terminated from one of his first-ever jobs for poor performance (ostensibly; it was more like bad management but that’s another story), & he was understandably crushed, but now it’s six years later & he’s working in an environment that’s way more suited to his skills & interests. even in the unlikely event that your boss said “hey, you asked to work from home & that pissed me off so I’m firing you”–which would, of course, be ridiculous–it still wouldn’t ruin your entire career.

      all of the above is stuff I tell MYSELF when I’m freaking out over nothing–my good friend/coworker & I have a running joke that any surprise meeting/phone call with our boss means we’re about to get fired, partially as a way of diffusing our own irrational fears–but hopefully it helps other people too. if nothing else, you can often find comfort in looking at the people around you: are all your coworkers as high-performing as you? are there people you know aren’t pulling their weight? if THEY still have jobs, then surely you can’t have that much to worry about.

    2. tcookson*

      This. When I know that I haven’t really given my best effort, my confidence flags and I’m constantly thinking that people are speaking critically of me to one another. Keeping good relationships with people in the office helps, but the only real comfort, for me, is knowing that I have done the highest reasonable amount of due diligence.

  5. Ali*

    All these letters that sound like me lately…

    I can be the same way, especially when I got promoted and had a new boss. New Boss was straightforward with my mistakes and would hit me for even small things (he is a bit nitpicky), and at first I really resented it. It felt like he’d never actually let me do my work and would be breathing down my neck forever. I have been fired and laid off for performance issues in the past, so I was always worrying that these mistakes were making or breaking me and hat I’d be fired or demoted from my new job.

    But about 5-6 months into things, I calmed down and understood that Boss was just trying to help me get better and wanted me to be good. Even though he still occasionally tells me about mistakes, I learn from them and just tell myself “Tomorrow will be a new day.” That helps me see that no, I’m not getting fired for a typo or a technical issue in an article. (I’m a website editor.) And, it gives me something to work on.

    When I asked him for feedback at about the six-month mark of my promotion, he put everything out there that I needed to work on and said he was really glad I got in touch. And he wasn’t mean about it…it was all very constructive. Now, he tells me what a long way I’ve come and asks how I’m feeling in the job, the conversation is a much more positive one. Also, I don’t really resent him anymore. He has his quirks, but no one is perfect, and our relationship is a lot better than what it was when I couldn’t stand him first starting out. (I’m not sure if he ever knew he got on my nerves sometimes, but sometimes our exchanges could be snippy…)

    1. AP*

      This is so true! I’ve been at my job for about six years, but when I first started I was coming off a string of disastrous contract-length projects, and I was really not confident about even answering a phone call. There were a million tiny things that I had to learn, and when I got any of them wrong I was convinced that I would be let go immediately. I didn’t realize that much of it was about making an investment in training someone, whereas in the project I’d worked on in the past they really wanted someone who could just fall in for a short time and do the job perfectly without guidance (and they were kind of awful managers). My bosses now are great, but I would estimate that it took me a year to get comfortable!

      I can always find a new mistake to make, but I work really hard to make sure I don’t need to be reminded of the ones I already made!

  6. Anon*

    I do the same thing as well, and it’s for the exact reason Alison suggested above – I had a really bad manager for my first job out of college, and was blindsided by a bad performance review and a performance improvement plan. I didn’t receive any training or feedback from this manager (it was just a poorly run organization and a terrible manager), and honestly in retrospect, I don’t think what happened was really my fault.

    Even with that insight, it’s haunted the two subsequent jobs I’ve had since that first one. In my second job, I was so terrified of feedback that I actively avoided asking and receiving feedback. It also meant my first year on that job, I was an anxious mess, so much so that I ended up on anti-anxiety meds. However, in that case, I was blindsided by a raise, not a bad performance review.

    After that experience, I approached my third job differently. I told my manager from the beginning that I tended to have work anxiety and would appreciate regular feedback, be it good or bad. After getting regular feedback, my anxiety stopped. And I realized something important – no matter the feedback, getting feedback is always a net positive. If I get good feedback, I’m being reassured that I’m doing my job well, and can relax. If I get critical feedback, I know there’s a problem, can fix it, and not be blindsided with a bad performance review. So I guarantee you – ask for regular feedback, and your anxiety will lessen, even if that feedback is critical.

  7. LizNYC*

    I struggle with this too, but I want the OP to not discount just how much of this mental torture could be linked to your previous job!

    After I and two of my coworkers left OldJob, we jokingly talked about having PTSD because our manager had ingrained in us that “feedback” = “horrible, belittling criticism” and “meet in my office” = “one step away from firing.” At NewJob, I had to consciously say to myself “NewBoss isn’t OldBoss. Proceed like a sane person until NewBoss does something to warrant caution.” What helped was constantly reminding myself that I was in a new work environment, being really aware of how NewBosses would treat people around me (well!), and just acknowledging that OldJob inflicted some wounds that would take time to heal — but to act normally (on the outside) in the meantime.

  8. Katie the Fed*

    Oh god do I empathize.

    As an employee, which I am, I over-personalize feedback. My boss just told me I need to work on something, and he was absolutely right, but I’m sitting here trying to hold it together because I feel completely devastated and like a total failure at life.

    As a manager though, I know that all I want is for my employees to perform at their best and I give feedback to help them.

    Ironic, no?

    So…yeah. I don’t know.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This helped me a lot. When I had to give feedback, it made me realize that some bosses actually do want an employee to succeed.

  9. MiketheRecruiter*

    The best advise I ever got was from my roommate, who will admit he isn’t the brightest bulb in the box…

    “You’ve never been yelled at at your job before? Really? It’s a job. It’s not going to be perfect. You got a job this time, you can always get another one. It’s really not worth freaking out over.”

    Your stress/anxiety is a sign that you care. If you didn’t care you’d be numb.

    Feeling stress/anxiety is normal. More experience distances you from it (at least it has for me – my first professional job was pretty much a disaster, this one is going better, and I expect my next one to be even better).

    1. Don't Care*

      Honestly I’m so glad I’m moving into the numb category with my job. Nothing about work is worth stress/anxiety that could not carry over into my real life.

  10. Anonymoose*

    Man, can I relate. Over-thinking and over-analyzing…what does this mean? What did he mean by that? Why did she word it that way? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Anticipating the worst. Compulsively worrying. My boss once called me into her office, and I was absolutely sure she was going to fire me – she gave me a raise.

    Part of my issue is CPTSD (called over vigilance…I have to anticipate the next bad thing, so I am prepared for it..have to be ready for the next blow), part is low self-esteem (how can anyone be happy with me or anything I do? I am not smart enough or capable enough for anything), and part is anxiety disorder (which I may have had problems with even without CPTSD).

    OP, if you have unresolved trauma in your past, get therapy. Don’t let this sort of stuff continue to color your life. You have no idea how much constant fretting and worrying is really weighing you down until it falls off. It’s amazing. Medication also helped me tremendously. Seriously – I am like 95% different and better.

    You’re getting great advice all over the place. Take bites from every plate. Good luck.

  11. Mena*

    Please don’t assume that it is all about YOU!!!

    But, I’d stay off the Internet in the office, especially if you want to work from home occasionally.

  12. Katrina Bass*

    On the subject of taking feedback in this position – give yourself some! I pretty much always evaluate my own work, as objectively as possible, so that I can apply that knowledge to outside feedback. I set a high bar, and as long as I’m consistently reaching or exceeding it, I feel great. When I don’t, I’ll chastise myself a little and move on. People make mistakes, and good workers don’t make them twice.

    Now, in all honesty, I’ve had some MAJOR f-ups in my day. I try so hard to tell myself it’s natural to really oops once a year/every couple of years, especially with our volume, but I end up feeling inadequate for a couple or few weeks. I get hyper-vigilant (neurotic, crazy, triple checking every sentence), then it mellows out and I ultimately don’t repeat the mistake. I think that’s pretty natural and normal when you really, seriously, screw the pooch.

    A couple of years ago I told a client that as soon as the money settled from the trade I placed, we’d send the cash directly to their checking account since they were closing on their new home that day. I didn’t check to make sure we had their bank info on file… We didn’t… MORTIFYING. We had to scramble on closing day and it was a huge inconvenience to the client that made me look utterly incompetent. Also not a mistake I should’ve made after as many years as I’d been doing this. I wasn’t at all surprised when my boss and I had an entire conversation based solely on that mistake, and while what he said didn’t feel the best, he didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already said to myself.

  13. Rindle*

    “Next week I emailed a request to work from home a day. Response was, ‘We can discuss that when we next catch up.'”

    I would have freaked out, too. I mean, “freak” is a strong word, but I definitely would have worried, and I would have been thinking about it pretty steadily until I could talk to Boss. But that seems reasonable to me here. His message sounded ominous, doesn’t it? Do others disagree? Am I way off the scale here? (I am anxious by nature, but I’m usually good at knowing when I’m being reasonable or not.)

    1. Chris80*

      I personally would have freaked out, too, so maybe that also says something about me! IMHO, anytime a fairly basic “yes/no” question is considered worthy of discussion, it’s because there’s a problem of some kind.

      1. doreen*

        I don’t think it sounds ominus. I might have been annoyed that the answer wasn’t yes, or that that I didn’t get an actual answer but I would not have been worried that I did something.

    2. SAK*

      It was only OP’s second week and doesn’t sound like they had discussed it previously so a simple yes/no maybe wasn’t possible.

  14. Anon*

    This was me the first 6-8 months of my current job (which I’ve had for 5 years). I went from being big fish-small pond to medium sized fish-in the fracking ocean. From management that never questioned me and let me do whatever I wanted to management that made me question every breath I took to the point that I ended up in the hospital.

    I learned a lot about managing my stress and how to deal with micromanagers. I also learned not to over think. Things are a million times better now. New bosses have helped but even with old boss, I finally found my footing and figured her out. It can take time. Long story, short.

  15. Miss Displaced*

    I do exactly the same thing, but then again I work for bats**t crazy, mean bully boss. I never used to be like that, but with almost two years of working and walking on eggshells I physically and mentally cringe every time he wants to “talk” with me.

  16. Anonymous_J*

    Where I work, I never get timely feedback, and I RARELY get positive feedback, so I’m very sure that OP’s anxiety has been caused by the previous job.

    It’s unfortunate. While I’m glad to know I’m not alone in feeling on edge any time one wants to give me feedback, it makes me really sad to know that so many people in the workforce are treated so badly as to become ill.

    I’m still ardently looking for a new job. My boss’ presence makes me want to jump out a window, and I make far fewer mistakes when he is not in the office. Go figure. :(

  17. Elizabeth West*

    Somewhere along the line, your brain learned to expect the worst from these situations.

    Okay, this is totally true. You can actually wire yourself to react this way to everything. I had so much stress at Exjob that this happened to me, and it helped ruin my relationship with my ex. :””””( I would give anything on earth (anything) if that hadn’t happened, but I didn’t take care of it soon enough.

    I’ll give you the advice I gave Katie the Fed in the other thread–BREATHE. Slowly in through your nose, and slowly out through your mouth. Pretend you’re blowing out a candle in the corner. It forces you to calm down and lowers your heart rate. Tell yourself to let go of worry; there is nothing you can do about an unknown until you have more information.

    It sounds like your boss is fair and flexible, and he’s clear about what he wants from you. It’s bad bosses who jump you about stuff they didn’t make clear. Try to relax and do your work as thoroughly and professionally as you can. Remember, feedback can be good as well as bad. :)

    You can do this!

  18. J*

    Wow. The OP just described my previous and current job. Thanks for the advice, Alison! And thanks for asking the question, OP!

  19. fposte*

    Other people are giving good advice; I’m drawn specifically to the “I pictured myself having to explain to my husband that my at-will contract had been terminated…”

    At that point, you’re making a choice–a compulsively influenced choice, but a choice just like it’s a choice to pick at that dangling hangnail (who, me?). Since you know you go into a tizzy, I strongly recommend you develop a specific alternative activity to do when one starts so that you redirect yourself into doing something else rather than catastrophizing, which makes things increasingly worse. Something physical is really good–stretch at your desk, deep breaths as Elizabeth suggests, wall pushups, whatever. But make a rule that when you get feedback you do X, where X is something active that isn’t “sit while your mind races.”

    And much sympathy! I had a really difficult job time just when my thyroid medications had gotten way out of whack, so I had no calm to find. It’s tough to make your body help you when it’s determined it can’t.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think imagining telling (or rather hearing the response from) a spouse doesn’t have be be bad, assuming a kind and supportive spouse/partner/friend. You tell them and then imagine the response: they give you a hug and say, hey we’ll figure it out. You’re strong, you’re smart, you got this job, we’ve survived before, lets watch some bad tv and set this out of our minds for a couple hours and tackle it fresh in the morning.
      (And if that person isn’t your spouse, try to have a friend in your life who will.)

  20. voluptuousfire*

    Just reading the responses here makes me breathe a huge sigh of relief! I’ve had a lot of work anxiety in the past and it really makes me glad I wasn’t alone. I always seemed to be the one in my sphere that had this issue.

  21. AnonAnony*

    I’ve been there – got fired (over the phone!) with zero warning. I’d screwed a couple things up, but there was no conversation about it, just “This isn’t working out. I’ll pay you for the next two weeks, please pass the phone to Joe.”

    My next job? Every time a boss closed a door, I nearly had a panic attack. It took me screwing up something semi-significant, and having my manager *actually talk to me about how to fix it* to realize that my thoughts weren’t healthy. I’m generally much better now, for me it took talking to a therapist, and taking some anti-anxiety meds while my brain re-learned its reactions to normal office interactions.

    I think another component, outside of anxiety, is that a lot of people (including me!) get the mistaken notion that we should magically know how to do our jobs perfectly, what our bosses wish, and any/all future skills and expectations. Psychic, empath, time-traveler… written out like that, I can see that it’s not actually a reasonable job description!

  22. Not So NewReader*

    Great question, OP. I have had friends that were paralyzed in fear because of previous bad experiences.
    I wrestle with some of this stuff, too.

    If you can, try to reduce the sugar/caffine/alcohol/tobacco if any in your life. These four things will cause anxiety to go through the roof. Just do it for a while, to help give yourself a break. Make sure you drink plenty of water. A dehydrated body is a stress-prone body. Yeah, this stuff is hard to remember when the world is sitting on your shoulders… I know. But it will make a difference, I promise.

    One poster pointed this out- some anxiety comes from guilt. Guilt morphs into fear and there you have it. Some people feel guilty about accidentally taking a pen home- so some guilt is not even justified. Do you absolute best every day. (Some days are better than others. Go one day at a time.) If you make a mistake, either fix it or go in right away and ask how to fix it. Don’t let things linger and fester. Don’t wait for the boss to come find you, rather go find him.

    Read books about toxic bosses and toxic work places. Arm yourself with knowledge. Read this blog to find people talking about what healthy work places look like.

    I have used Alison’s idea about helping a friend with a work problem. Take whatever is going on at the moment and ask yourself, “If my friend, Jane, had this problem what would I tell her to help her?” Some how it is easier to think about Jane getting called in the boss’ office than thinking about ourselves facing our boss.

    One mistake I have made in the past is I have ignored the boss’ compliments. It was as if he never said anything positive. Make yourself listen to and absorb the compliments.

    One last technique I have found useful- but it may or may not be helpful for you. Go to worst case scenario. What is the worst thing the boss can say to you? Pick just one thing. Then decide how you will answer that statement.

    For ex:
    Boss: No one here likes you.
    Me: I am not here to make new best buds. I am here to do a job. People are telling me that they prefer to work with me in X situation. So I am confused by what you are saying here. How specifically do you want me to change what I am doing?

    (Never accept generalities as is. Always question and extract more detail. If the boss is lying that will become apparent very quickly because the boss cannot make up detail fast enough to answer you.)

    Once you figure out worst case scenario then everything else will seem to be a tamer and more manageable.

  23. Ruffingit*

    I would add this to asking for feedback: don’t do it all the time. Asking for feedback is great, but I get the sense from the OP that she is freaked out often and may be one of those people who needs constant (or near constant) reassurance that she’s doing OK. So she should ask for feedback, but not all the time because then she becomes the needy one in the office who is seeking reassurance as opposed to constructive feedback.

    1. KM*

      Same. What I was going to say is that the OP should try to resist the urge to escalate (as by, for example, trying to move the catch-up forward to get an immediate answer). Sometimes when people feel anxious, they feel pressure to get a resolution RIGHT NOW so that they will stop feeling anxious, but the better solution is to learn how to tolerate anxiety without acting on it (maybe with the help of a therapist, if it’s really difficult). Once you can feel anxious without letting it control you, you have more power over the situation and the anxiety itself is not longer such a scary thing.

  24. OP*

    Everyone here is being so kind – thank you!
    Re therapy advice, I think this job is the best therapy I could have. It’s only a short-term contract, sadly, but it’s made such a difference to my confidence – and garnered me a good reference!

    I still have bad days, like when I made an Important Typo on a document that was going to be released to the markets that would have been a Disastrous Typo if it hadn’t been proofread and I deliberately broke a pen because I was so angry at myself, but overall it’s lovely. My boss’ boss actually said, “Oh no, but she’s doing so much great work!” when my boss mentioned I was leaving soon.

    When I find a full-time job, it will be far more challenging and I will put all your coping advice to good use. My last job did mess me up and I was briefly put on meds, but I believe it was situational and will attenuate away without the help of meds or therapy, but we shall see.

    1. Ruffingit*

      For what it’s worth, I completely understand how previous jobs can screw with your head. I had a job once with a boss who I believe was a true narcissist. The woman was abusive to everyone who worked there and turnover was literally 90%. It was a difficult environment and one which I left without another job to go to. I was in a position to be able to do that at the time (married so another income coming in) and I felt such relief. But, after that job ended, there was a period of time where I had to just take a breather.

      If you are still feeling anxiety to the point of breaking pens because you’re upset at mistakes, you may want to consider therapy before moving into a full-time job situation. There’s no shame in getting some preventive help with anxiety and you may encounter people at your next job who are not as nice as the ones at your current job. That is not to try and scare you, only to say that it helps a lot if you can go into any situation having a really good, strong handle on the anxiety.

      Best of luck!

  25. cncx*

    I deal with this a lot, and as Alison said, it is mainly baggage from my old job. Specifically because one of the things my old boss did to get me fired so she could keep her job was turn performance reviews and weekly meetings into long bash fests. So i started this job thinking my boss was out to get me because i had been gaslighted so long at my previous job.

    What helps me breathe and chill is that i tell myself that, unlike old boss, new boss is a human being who has always told it to me straight and who has never waited for a meeting to tell me something i didn’t know. Think about what you know about your boss, his personality, learn to trust your intiution again and believe in yourself and your work ethic.

  26. Sarah*

    I relate to this as well … after my last position ended disastrously, I recognized that low self-esteem was part of the issues that led to me quitting-so-I-wouldn’t-be-fired. I sought out therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It has helped me with so many aspects in my life.

    Basically, I learned to recognize illogical thoughts and replace them with logical thoughts. Over time, the illogical thoughts lessened.

    Instead of: “I’m the worst XYZ EVER. I suck,” it’s “I do most things correctly, there are a couple of things I can work on and I’ll improve in those areas.”
    Instead of “I ALWAYS mess up,” it’s “I did XYZ and ABC well yesterday, I don’t always mess up.”
    “I should never have become XYZ” turns into “I’m a pretty good XYZ. Everyone makes mistakes and this is just a minor one, at best.”

    I’ve also learned that “good enough is good enough.” I can’t aim for perfection. I will fail if I always expect myself to be a rockstar, superstellar, fabulous good performer. I can focus on doing a job “good enough.” And over time, good performance has done me well.

    So I’ve stopped freaking out when my boss has emailed or called me, asking for me to contact him back. I’ve learned to tell my brain that chances are the message is no big deal. And it hasn’t been! There has only been one time in the last 5 months that there has been an issue with me. The rest of the messages are all typical work messages in which he wanted to impart some information about a work task.

    Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you’re doing good work, recognize the freaking-out thought, and tell yourself that it’s probably no big deal. The more you lessen the illogical thoughts, the more confidence you will have at work and that will show.

  27. Sarah*

    Oh and another thing I’ve started is an SKA file. Sarah Kicks Ass.

    Every time a project goes well, someone tells me I did something well, someone tells me it’s been a good day to work with me, etc., I write it down in the SKA file. Even a simple “good work” about a particular task. When I’m having a bad day, I can pull up the file and remind myself of all the days that went well, and all the projects that were complimented. Anything that made me feel like I did well. And that file helps me when it is time to write accomplishment reports because I can point to specific areas where I’ve done well.

    1. Miss Displaced*

      I like this idea a lot!
      I NEVER get any positive feedback from my bully-boss, it’s only ever about things gone wrong. I can see how at some workplaces we may have to do this ourselves.

    2. Anon-na-na*

      I do this too! (My mentor’s idea.) I keep a folder of emails called “Nice” for whenever someone sends me a kind thank-you or other complimentary note. But I like the SKA file idea, as my name also starts with S. :)

  28. Helen*

    It really is theraputic to read all this – I had 4 different jobs where my anxiety helped me fail, in combo with crazy co workers and bosses. Going on meds was the best thing, along with finally finding a good fit! I never thought it would happen!

  29. Ruffingit*

    This post has taught us that a lot of us can relate to the PTSD that can come from previous, horrible job environments. I am sorry for those who have had to endure those things, but there’s also some degree of comfort in knowing I’m not alone in having had those experiences.

  30. TamaraLea*

    Sometimes I think people forget that in order to fully close the loop on feedback you have to say thank you. Otherwise you will not be approachable to give feedback in the future. Create an environment of trust for others so they know they can give you feedback without it becoming weird.

    What I try to do: 1. ask for feedback from bosses, coworkers, customers, etc.; 2. listen when they give feedback; 3. do not take this as the time to defend yourself, make excuses – – or even agree / disagree with them; 4. ask questions; 5. say thank you.

  31. Contessa*

    Gosh, it’s been incredibly helpful to read about other people having the same problems. I thought it was just me, and that it meant there was something wrong with me. Poor management at my job has given me PTSD, and hearing that from a therapist was REALLY cathartic, because I could stop blaming it all on myself. Yes, I made mistakes, but now I know not to do/not do those things again . . . and since I was never properly trained, I can’t shoulder all the blame. I’m jealous that the OP has found a better work environment–I hope that is me soon! I think AAM’s advice, especially #3, is really good. I’m going to work on that too.

  32. Vicki*

    “I bet more of this than you realize is linked to your last job, or to other experiences where you learned to expect criticism or to hear you were doing something wrong. Somewhere along the line, your brain learned to expect the worst from these situations.”

    Alison is right on with this comment. I know the feeling all too well. I;ve had enough crazy managers that I expect the worst with any new ones. “We’ll discuss this at our next meeting” would send shivers into me. I just “know” it’s code for a long complicated in-person conversation that makes me feel bad!

    It’s the boss version of “We need to talk”.


    (OP – you have our sympathy. Good luck and I hope your boss isn;t at all what you’re dreading!)

    1. Ruffingit*

      I know the feeling too and it sucks. I am the same way now, expecting the worst with new employers because almost every manager has turned out to be. And yes, I realize I’m the common denominator here. I’ve been learning from this blog about investigating the company for the right fit and so on. Unfortunately, there have been situations for me where the right fit was less a consideration than keeping a roof over my head.

      Anyway, totally get PTSD with jobs. It’s not easy.

  33. Allie*

    I’m similar – I always automatically fear the worst when my manager wants to catch up. I defuse it by jokingly saying “Uh oh. What did I do?” At this point, he’s always “No! Nothing’s wrong” which makes me relax. After a while you stop thinking the worst, but I know that when I move to a new role my insecurities will start up again.

  34. VictoriaHR*

    I am the same way. Previous bosses who blindsided me with write-ups (or, in one case, a firing) and such. My boss now is great and I constantly get positive feedback from him and the VP of our department. Couldn’t be happier with them! But there’ll always be that little voice in the back of my mind saying “uh oh are you in trouble?”

  35. Brton3*

    I once had a terrible boss who did nothing but heap abuse on me. Even now I get a tense feeling in my stomach when my (amazing) new boss wants to talk about something.

Comments are closed.